Group eyes technology to turn garbage and straw into oil

It looks good on paper but it sounds too good to be true. A Manitoba group is keen to find out if a Swiss machine can actually make synthetic crude oil out of garbage, straw and manure.

“This does work on paper and is working in other places (including Germany),” consultant Normand Mabon said at a recent meeting hosted by the Killarney & District Community Development Corporation.

“It may be worthwhile to try it in the field.”

Mabon is part of a group trying to build a pilot plant to test the technology. The group — which includes Peter Blawat, another retired farm management specialist, and Ross Beavis, president of Advance Energy Resources — has conducted a preliminary investigation.

“With enough money you can make anything work, but can you make money at it? That’s the important part,” said Mabon, a former provincial farm management specialist who now farms near Notre Dame du Lourdes.

“A lot of people want to be green and they don’t care what the cost is. We don’t mind being green but it would be nicer if you could make money at it or at least break even.”

Mabon’s team reviewed several biomass digesters and concluded Pyromex’s ultra-high-temperature pyrolysis model is the most promising. They estimate a plant capable of processing 25 tonnes of biomass daily could generate $2 million in revenue and a $900,000 annual profit.

Those are attractive numbers, but are based on half of the material coming from municipal carbon-based waste, which would earn the plant a $25-per-tonne tipping fee. And processing garbage, which has highly variable content, is tricky.

The Swiss machine heats ground-up feedstock in the absence of oxygen to 1,250 C. At that temperature biomass almost instantly turns to gas. A complex process then turns the gases (mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen) into synthetic gas (syngas) under high pressure and then into crude synthetic oil. Syngas can also be used to generate electricity while synthetic oil fetches as much as $168 a barrel, Beavis said. Twenty-five tonnes of biomass would produce almost 34 barrels of synthetic oil a day.

“If we can get one to work the way we say (on paper) then everybody can have one,” Mabon said. “And if we get up to 1,000 barrels a day in the province we can have our own refinery that makes it into jet fuel or diesel fuel.”

Mabon’s group is offering to do pre-feasibility studies for any interested municipalities and, longer term, would be looking to farmers to invest in such plants.

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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